“Entitled”

Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16

O Lord uphold thou me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

Since an early age, my younger sister has been remarkably strong-willed and vocal. This is, no doubt, due in part to the influence of her siblings–all at least 10 years older than she and a pretty opinionated and witty bunch (if I do say so myself).

My sassy little sister was also a product of modern parenting. As a result she was cautioned to “make good choices” rather than to “be good;” and in situations where my brothers or I would have been sentenced to time out, she was given time to “adjust her attitude.” These incidents were frequent enough that, to this day, her clever siblings enjoy interrupting conversations to tell her she needs an attitude adjustment. (She doesn’t seem nearly as amused as we are by this joke.)

The characters in today’s Scripture lessons need attitude adjustments.

The first lesson, from Exodus, tells of the Israelites–recently liberated from oppressive slavery in Egypt–complaining about their liberators, Moses and Aaron, and even their newfound independence. At least in Egypt they had meat and bread to eat. Why bother leading us to freedom, they murmur, if we are just going to die of hunger? A sensible question (perhaps even an understandable complaint), except when one considers all the occasions up to that point when the Israelites had been the repeated recipients of God’s abundant providence and grace.

God has delivered them out of the land of Egypt, across the Red Sea; God has made the bitter waters at Marah sweet for their consumption and then led them to a place of many fresh springs: As numerous as these miraculous acts of God, however, are the Israelites’ complaints for something more. According to the text, this latest complaint for meat and bread comes at “the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt (Exodus 16:1),” only some forty-odd days into a wilderness journey that we know will take them forty years and they are already disillusioned with the promises of God, already forgetful—or worse, unappreciative–of all that God has done for them.

It appears, as timeless as a belief in God is the belief that that same God is denying us our due.

Of course, traveling toward a promised and yet unseen homeland for four decades surely has its moments of justified frustration. Yet, at the same time, nostalgia for days of enslavement seems recklessly dismissive of the risks and the sacrifices that were made in pursuit of freedom. Somebody, it seems, is in need of an attitude adjustment.

But lest we get too critical of the ancient Israelites we have the Gospel lesson to trigger our own feelings of entitlement.

Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard does not require much explanation to reach a modern audience. It may be helpful to know that the vineyard was a familiar metaphor for God’s mission field or the world at large in which God’s followers labored, but the narrative of hiring people at different hours of the work day and paying them all the same amount is as comprehensible–and yet simultaneously incomprehensible–for us as it would have been for Jesus’ original audience.

Rather than being satisfied with what they were promised, those hired first witness the landowner giving a daily wage to the latecomers and suddenly feel entitled to more…and upset when they do not receive it. They have a point when they say, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

But the landowner also makes good sense in his rebuttal, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?”

It is a classic example of the complications of entitlement, allowing someone else’s circumstances to inform our sense of what we should have, what we deserve, what is our due…the first are no longer pleased with what they have received though it is precisely what they were promised and what they agreed to.

The landowner goes on to say “…I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. …Are you envious because I am generous?”

Let me be the first to say, “Yes.” Yes, Mr. Landowner, I am envious and I imagine I am not alone. I am wondering why I bothered to get up so early and to work so hard; I am annoyed that in addition to paying us all the same amount, you chose to pay them—the latecomers—first…

I am so frustrated, to be honest, that it hardly seems relevant that this morning I woke up unsure of whether or not I would have work today. I am so envious, in fact, that I do not realize that having been hired I too have been the beneficiary of your generosity and that I could have just as easily been the person still standing idle at five o’clock.

A revelatory truth of this parable—beyond its undeniable depiction of God’s nature; God’s incomprehensible generosity and the challenge to our belief that we might earn God’s favor or grace—is a truth about our nature: we over-identify with those hired first, those who feel wronged and entitled to more…though, of course, we have also been the latecomer in certain situations in our lives, unemployed at the final hour, suddenly the recipient of abundant blessing and grace.

Perhaps we too are in need of an attitude adjustment.

The nice thing about the attitude adjustment sanctions that governed my sister’s childhood, as opposed to the solitary time-out sessions that defined mine (and possibly yours) was that I was permitted to stay with her. She and I would sit and wait for that miraculous transformation of her attitude that would allow her to re-engage in the activity at hand and actually enjoy it.

I have memories of sitting with this pouting youngster who, with all of her impetuousness and sassy chatter, was learning to negotiate the world with a boldness that my adolescent self could not quite muster. An ability to be tempered but not defeated by discipline, and a readiness to move on –attitude adjusted—with boundless energy and potential for joy.

It is possible, that I may, on occasion, join my brothers in teasing my sister about her frequent need for attitude adjustments but it is also certain that in those moments when we sat together, I was her student.

And the learning has continued.

A year and a half into my time here at Incarnation, the Rector’s wife Mary died. The weeks immediately following are as vivid in my mind as yesterday. And I find myself often thinking of a remembrance given by a close friend of the family at the funeral. Ellen said, “Mary never asked, ‘Why me?’ about being afflicted with MS, cruel disease that it is; because if she had …she would also have asked, ‘Why me?’ about all the many blessings of her life, among them the men—her husband and their two sons—that she so adored. ‘Why me?’”

This was absolutely in keeping with my limited knowledge of Mary and her spirit. And, coming as it did, at a stressful time in my own family, it was also one of the most profound attitude adjustments of my life.

Five years and one month ago, I showed up for work at Incarnation. I have received so much more than my daily wage, much more that my due, much more than I could have possibly imagined.

Why me?

And now it is time to say “good bye” but first I must say thank you.

Thank you for receiving me so warmly and inviting me into your lives. Thank you for supporting ministry initiatives that I valued—the Twenties and Thirties program, Vacation Bible School and Godly Play, and the fulfillment of our 5-year commitment to the Carpenter’s Kids in Tanzania. Thank you for forgiving me my missteps, my moments of distraction and my tardiness, which of late has been record-breaking, even for me. Thank you for never judging my vocation in light of my youth, my divorce or my first attempts at chanting Morning Prayer. Thank you.

And thank you, God, for blessing us with this time together and for blessing Incarnation with a willing and gifted new Assistant Minister, and for blessing me with a new community to serve.

Next month I will move to Charlotte, North Carolina, to continue my ministry as the Associate Rector at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter. Believe me, I have had moments of “Why me?” Or more specifically, “Why Charlotte? Why not New York, Lord?”

Time to adjust my attitude.

I have been looking for a new position for the majority of this calendar year and I am pleased to say, I have found a church that I believe will honor and build upon the wonderful experience I have had here. Indeed, Charlotte will be a major adjustment from New York, but so will doing ministry in any context other than Incarnation.

What the physical distance makes easier is the necessary change in my relationships with all of you. While there will still be an impulse to drop by Incarnation and keep up-to-date on everyone’s lives, the desire will be quelled by the airfare that would be involved.

And there is a need for me to be less available, in order that I might possibly open my heart to receive my new congregation as warmly as this congregation received me. And I wish the same for you and my successor, Ginger, who is also a dear friend of mine. I know she is eager and excited to get to know you and I am confident that you will feel the same.

The lessons today highlight our tendency to compare our circumstances to those we envisioned for ourselves or to compare them to the circumstances of others, and the resulting feelings of entitlement and anger at not having received our due. Fortunately, this compare-and-despair behavior is not the only option available to us. We can choose to take true notice of our own reality and to give thanks.

People of Incarnation, again, thank you. Be well. I miss you already, and I will love you always.



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